Proposal for a New Form: the “Boulder”

Proposal for a new form, because I’m writing in it . . .

A “Boulder” is wedged somewhere between a prose poem and a micro-essay, as if between a rock and a hard place, but gestures toward fiction through its willingness to engage in absurd scenarios instigated by the true occasions or circumstances introduced in the title. At under 500 words, it is a rhetorical form that posits itself as another form (i.e. a disclaimer, parable, alternate history, etc.) and it must respond in some way to STUPID SHIT (i.e. sexist, discriminatory, or otherwise dumb-dumb things) said to the speaker. Figuratively, the “Boulder” can be seen as a roadblock, avalanche, or agent of Wile. E. Coyote-style injury.

I have written three so far and I’ve started several more. An example of one of the titles: “An Alternate History In Response to the Man Who Told Me Canned Biscuits Ruined America.”

Hybrid Assignment in Introductory Creative Writing Class

For my intro to creative writing class at William & Mary this semester, I’m asking students to write one hybrid work as their final workshop piece. Often I feel like these introductory classes set up limits for students, but I wonder if allowing them to see genre as something that’s a little more fluid will encourage continued reading across the genres, an understanding that writing techniques can be used across genres, and creativity with the execution of their ideas. They will be reading a few hybrid texts at the end of the semester, too. The hybrid assignment will also give us a chance to review what we’ve gone over about the three genres by forcing us to consider their respective challenges. I think it will also give students the opportunity to tackle issues they faced across multiple assignments. Say they struggled with point of view in their poetry and concrete details in their nonfiction, but the poems presented strong images and their nonfiction offered an unwavering first-person. Perhaps they’ll be able to double up on their strengths through a hybrid work.

Regardless of the success of their pieces, I hope that we can have a great discussion that will prepare them for debates about form and theory in upper-level, genre-specific courses. Additionally, I don’t want to have a situation where I say, “You’ll discuss these forms if you choose to continue taking creative writing courses.” I want to be able to answer these inevitable questions thoroughly, not offhandedly in a minute or so in the middle of a workshop. Besides, you never know which discussion might excite a student about writing. Maybe those slippery hybrid genres are what really interest some students and they might not know it until you offer it to them!

Spring 2015 Course Descriptions and Reading Lists

Bookplate of American painter and illustrator Edward Penfield (1866-1925)
Bookplate of American painter and illustrator Edward Penfield (1866-1925)

In the Spring 2015 semester, I will be teaching ENGL 215: Textual Analysis at Virginia Commonwealth University and CRWR 212: Introduction to Creative Writing at The College of William & Mary. Below I’ve included the course descriptions and required texts for each course followed by a brief explanation of my choices for the classes’ reading lists.

VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH UNIVERSITY
ENGL 215: TEXTUAL ANALYSIS

Course Description
“Brickwork: Urban Imagination”—From the sidewalk to the skyscraper, alleys to main thoroughfares, the urban landscape has not only provided the setting to many works of great literature, it has become a kind of a foil for many protagonists. In this course, we’ll read novels, nonfiction, and poetry that use the urban landscapes, the exterior world, that increasingly engage, complicate, and reveal charactes’ internal life. Starting with photorealistic portrayals of cities in a particular moment, like those in essays by Joan Didion, and moving on to fabular remakings of place, as found in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, students will learn the basics of close reading, analyzing the literary devices and strategies, comparing and contrasting works, and contextualizing their discussion toward a main question about how a city can make a person, how people make a city. In addition to the previously mentioned authors, students will read excerpts or texts by Kazim Ali, Teju Cole, Charles Dickens, Nick Flynn, James Joyce, Rebecca Solnit, Zadie Smith, Anne Winters, and more.

Required Texts

  • Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Ed. Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray. 3rd Edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. ISB: 978-0312461881.
  • Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. ISBN: 978-0156453806.
  • Gautier, Amina. At-Risk. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-0820338880.
  • Levine, Philip. What Work Is. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. ISBN: 978-0679740582.
  • Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass and Selected Poems and Prose. Penguin, 2014. ISBN: 978-0143107439.
  • Winters, Anne. The Key to the City. University of Chicago Press, 1986. ISBN: 978-0226902272.

A course packet available online with excerpts taken from the following texts:

  • Ali, Kazim. Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities.
  • Biss, Eula. Notes from No Man’s Land.
  • Cole, Teju. Open City.
  • Crane, Hart. The Bridge.
  • Diaz, Junot. Drown
  • Dickens, Charles. Night Walks.
  • Didion, Joan. Slouching Toward Bethlehem.
  • Flynn, Nick. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
  • Gunn, Thom. The Man with the Night Sweats.
  • Hull, Lynda. Collected Poems.
  • Joyce, James. Dubliners.
  • Lowell, Robert. For the Union Dead.
  • Meitner, Erika. Copia.
  • Meitner, Erika. Ideal Cities.
  • Neruda, Pablo. The Heights of Machu Picchu (trans. Morín)
  • Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader.
  • Sandburg, Carl. Chicago Poems.
  • Shapiro, Alan. Night of the Republic.
  • Smith, Patricia. Blood Dazzler.
  • Smith, Zadie. White Teeth.
  • Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust: A History of Walking.
  • Teitman, Ryan. Litany for the City.

*The goal with my selection of these required texts and the course packet is to keep the students engaged and challenged while exposing them to a variety of canonical and contemporary writing in their acquisition of essential textual analysis skills.

Additionally, I want them to be exposed to poetry throughout the course, unlike my students who read only one poetic work this semester. I find that students who read a lot of poetry become much better readers of poems and, I’d even argue, all other texts; continued exposure is the key to their understanding. I came to this conclusion after reading the responses to Autobiography of Red, in which many of them thoroughly investigated sound and line breaks. I realized that I hadn’t trusted the 215 students enough to “get” poetry when I was making my syllabus because they hadn’t taken any college literature classes before; this time, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and give them equal parts poetry and prose.

The excerpts in the course packet will be short, and they will be used either on their own (like Didion), as a supplement for their books, and/or for in-class assignments. Many of the books on the excerpt list were originally a part of the working text lists. I decided, however, to cut down the required reading from this semester’s seven texts to five so that we could spend more time on in-depth exploration. In this way, we’ll have more focus on a few core texts and I won’t have to cut out many of the authors I want to teach. I might supplement Anne Winters with Alan Shapiro poems and an excerpt from Dickens’s Night WalksInvisible Cities with some of Ali’s Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities. Once I start making the course calendar, I’ll have a better idea about how I’ll juxtapose these texts.

I decided to add the Bedford Glossary because I felt like I often had to remind students of literary terms, strategies, and concepts this semester. They received these terms through lecture, discussion, and a glossary I created. A desk reference such as the Bedford, however, will provide them with many more possibilities to understand and locate literary devices and to explore the lenses through which to analyze texts. I haven’t decided yet whether I want to test them on a selection of these terms, but I think it might incentivize them to learn core terms.

WILLIAM & MARY
CRWR 212: INTRODUCTION TO CREATIVE WRITING

University Course Description
Workshop format emphasizes the basics of writing fiction and poetry. Class meets for one two-hour session per week. No previous writing experience is required.  Open to academic freshmen and academic sophomores with priority given to academic freshmen.

Required Texts

  • Biss, Eula. Notes from No Man’s Land. Graywolf Press, 2009. ISBN: 978-1555975180.
  • Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. (3rd Edition). Penguin Academics, 2010. ISBN: 978-0205750351.
  • Gautier, Amina. At-Risk. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-0820338880.
  • Levine, Philip. What Work Is. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. ISBN: 978-0679740582.
  • Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Wave Books, 2009. ISBN: 978-1933517407.
  • Rankine, Claudia. Citizen. Graywolf Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-1555976903.

*I decided that I wanted my Creative Writing students to be exposed to the types of writing that we generally eschew in lower-level courses, especially hybrid works like prose poems, lyric essays, etc. So many creative writing students I’ve encountered have such set ideas for what poetry or prose should be that it’s hard for them to engage the genres in any new way. The idea here is that we will start with fiction (Gautier), move into the essays (Biss), transition into poetry (Levine), and then consider poetry/prose hybrids (Nelson and Rankine). In every other creative writing class I’ve taught, questions about prose poetry and, less frequently, lyric essays have arisen. They want to know what they are and how to write them. I want students to understand genre as one bridge you can walk rather than separate rocks you have to hop between to cross the river. This decision is founded on my belief that a writer of any genre can learn from strategies of other genres and that there are many intersections between the genres.

I will use the Burroway for the students to learn essential concepts (setting, tone, point of view, etcetera), and I’ll likely use the example texts therein for in-class assignments to jumpstart exercises and or discussions.